States

What’s With All the Education News Out of Florida? A Recap of Education Policy Decisions

By Ileana Najarro — August 16, 2023 6 min read
Concept image of hand grabbing book from library shelf with an outline of the state of Florida overtop of image.
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In 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a Republican presidential candidate, signed into law legislation that restricted public school instruction on topics of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Since then, the state’s department of education has generated a flurry of headlines as it works to implement and enforce these laws amid local and national backlash over the impact on educators and families.

There’s book banning, rules restricting transgender students’ bathroom access at school, and conflict over African American history curriculum with national entities such as the nonprofit College Board, to name a few examples.

Some experts said the flurry of activity in Florida could be a bellwether for other conservative-leaning states.

“Even though this is directly impacting classrooms, and teachers, and kids in Florida right now, it is part of this larger legislative agenda where we are seeing these hard right acts of legislation, mostly anti-gay and anti-racial inclusion, being tested in these more conservative regions,” said Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor and program chair of Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

As of June 13, at least 18 states including Florida have imposed bans and restrictions on how topics of race and gender identity can be taught in K-12 schools. Florida is also among the 10 states since June that have passed laws allowing teachers to disregard students’ requested pronouns, or require parental permission for teachers to use trans and nonbinary students’ pronouns.

While controversial policies on topics such as race aren’t new in the education policy world, nor in Florida education policy specifically, “the abrasiveness and the cynicism of some of those policies” in the Sunshine State are unusual, said Jon Valant, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Valant and Meyer said some of this could be driven by DeSantis’ presidential campaign, as a means to score political points on the campaign trail. Some of it could be traced back to COVID-19 responses such as decisions over whether to close down schools, and how that flung education into public discourse and scrutiny, Valant added.

Even as state policy-making in education is decentralized, with individual states and localities having a lot of discretion in making their own policies, it’s not independent, Valant said. States often copy each others’ policies.

So while Florida educators and families grapple with a new policy landscape, the nation as a whole can learn a lesson or two.

“We absolutely need to be paying attention to how the districts and building leaders are trying to make sense out of these laws, because that’s exactly going to give us an insight into what’s going to happen when other states follow because I don’t think it’s a matter of if it’s a matter of when,” Meyer said.

To help states better track the breadth and scope of the fast-moving changes, here’s a rundown of some of the major policy stories out of Florida since 2022.

New, controversial academic standards

Under the direction of DeSantis, Florida invested millions in revamping its civics standards, which drew concerns from some experts given the framing of the new standards that places a bigger focus on patriotism, and the removal of more hands-on instructional approaches to civics education such as mock trials.

The new civics standards also came with new state-funded online training which offered teachers $3,000 stipends for successfully completing the course. It’s an approach to professional development that departs from traditional practices in other states.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023. For DeSantis, Tuesday was supposed to mark a major moment to help reset his stagnant Republican presidential campaign. But yet again, the moment was overshadowed by Donald Trump. The former president was the overwhelming focus for much of the day as DeSantis spoke out at a press conference and sat for a highly anticipated interview designed to reassure anxious donors and primary voters that he's still well-positioned to defeat Trump.

The state also came under fire for adopting new K-12 African American history standards meant to align with the state’s “Individual Freedom” law that restricts how topics of race can be taught in classrooms. Specifically, critics from across the country, including Vice President Kamala Harris, took issue with how the new standards depict slavery and massacres of African Americans.

Earlier this year, the state joined a handful of other states in requiring instruction on Asian American and Pacific Islander history. As work to develop standards that meet this requirement gets underway, experts question how this would be enforced given the state’s restrictions on instruction about race.

Anti-LGBTQ+ rules and regulations

The original “Parental Rights in Education” law forbade intentional instruction in Florida on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3. But state officials later expanded the scope of the law, which opponents refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, to grades K through 12. The law puts teachers at risk of losing their credentials if they violate it.

The “Don’t Say Gay” law has already led to at least one school having to shut down an after-school student club event featuring a drag queen as a guest speaker after state education officials called school administrators with concerns.

An estimated 200 people marched from Westcott Fountain to the Florida Capitol, Friday, March 31, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla., to express their opposition to HB 1069, an expansion on the "Don't Say Gay" bill from last session.

The state’s board of education has also passed rules implementing laws that, among other things, restrict bathroom access to transgender students.

A new survey of Florida families found that the “Don’t Say Gay” law has led to more than 40 percent of surveyed families considering moving out of state.

Bans and debates around AP classes

At the start of 2023, DeSantis announced a ban on the College Board’s new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because the course framework allegedly defied state law on how to teach about race in K-12 schools.

When the College Board published the course framework on Feb. 1, a national debate ensued over whether edits to the framework were made to align with DeSantis’ concerns. The nonprofit is now revising the framework once more ahead of a second-year pilot run at more than 700 schools nationwide.

Emmitt Glynn is seen from just outside his classroom at Baton Rouge Magnet High School teaching his second AP African American studies class on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Louisiana is one of 60 schools around the country testing the new course, which has gained national attention since it was banned in Florida.

At least one other state has followed Florida’s approach to the course: Arkansas education officials have removed high school course credit eligibility from the course, leaving schools preparing for the second-year pilot with questions on how to proceed.

This year, Florida also requested edits to AP Psychology so the course would abide by the state’s law prohibiting instruction on topics of gender identity and sexual orientation. The College Board pushed back against edits. Confusion then ensued at the start of the Florida school year as to whether schools could in fact offer the course in full as the College Board requires for it to count as an AP course without running afoul of state restrictions.

Rejected and edited subject matter textbooks

Last year, in an effort to abide by state law on how to teach about race, Florida’s department of education rejected math textbooks for allegedly containing prohibited materials tied to topics such as social-emotional learning principles or culturally responsive teaching.

Similarly, the state also rejected and requested edits of social studies textbooks.

Confusing book bans

School librarians in Florida underwent new training reminding them of the prohibition around any instructional materials that include topics of critical race theory, culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, social justice, “and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited” per the training. They were urged to err on the side of caution when selecting materials.

A student browses through books in the Presidio Middle School library in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Salesforce provided funds to refurbish and upgrade the schoolyard and library.

Confusion around what classroom reading materials and school library materials are allowed to be used stems from state law restricting instruction on race and gender identity and has led to book bans.

An example of a district’s approach to navigating state law and instructional materials that drew attention was one district paring down William Shakespeare’s works. The state responded saying they do not intend for Shakespeare’s works to be removed from classrooms.

Pushback against new policies

The policies coming out of Florida have been met with pushback both locally and nationally. Demonstrations across the country last spring took aim at legislation restricting teaching about race and leading to book bans in Florida and beyond.

Florida officials also face two lawsuits against book bans.

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